First published in the Times of Israel
Two recent hacks by Hamas into satellite TV transmissions of Israel’s popular Big Brother show herald a whole new level of cyber confrontation.
Last Friday evening, March 11, Hamas hijacked a satellite feed of Channel 2’s Big Brother, replacing it with a propaganda film that opens with scenes of Hamas terrorism and of the wounded in Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip, accompanied by ominous music. Superimposed on the film were the words, in Hebrew and Arabic, “Learn from history, flee for your lives and get out of our country.”
The three-and-half-minute clip continued with horrendous scenes of terror attacks in Israel, funerals, and Israeli soldiers taking down Palestinian terrorists depicted as martyrs. It also included footage of a January 1 Tel Aviv terror attack, in which Nashat Milhem, an Arab Israeli, gunned down three people. The superimposed message in Hebrew was “The year started in Tel Aviv, and we have already returned to Dizengoff,” referring to the central Tel Aviv street where two of Milhem’s victims were stabbed to death.
The Hamas feed ended with the words “Stay in your homes. The story’s not over. To be continued.” In an apparent attempt to coordinate the cyber and the physical arenas, several minutes later rockets were fired into Israel’s South from Hamas-controlled areas in Gaza, with four landing in open areas.
The Hamas hack into Channel 2’s programming – via the non-encrypted feed that is receivable by anyone with a satellite dish – is unusual, but it’s not the first time Israeli TV broadcasts have been interrupted in this way. Hamas inserted similar footage into the programming of both Channel 10 and Channel 2 during the IDF’s Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, showing images of those wounded by Israeli airstrikes accompanied by messages threatening more Hamas rocket strikes on Israel in retaliation. The Hamas message to Israelis in one of these broadcasts promised continuation of the rocket strikes indefinitely: “Your government chose the opening hour of this campaign. If your government does not agree to our terms, then prepare yourself for an extended stay in shelters.”
Hijacking TV satellite broadcasts, which may be done by transmitting signals at a more powerful strength on the same frequencies used for the original broadcast in order to override it, is one method of leveraging cyberspace capabilities for political and propaganda purposes. The substitution of intended programming with messages intended for the same audience, yet radically different from what viewers and listeners are expecting, can have a powerful impact.
Hamas is not alone in using these methods. Israel has also hacked into the Al-Aqsa Hamas-run TV stations’ broadcasting, as in the 2009 replacement of anti-Semitic children’s’ cartoons with videos of attacks on Hamas leaders, accompanied by the message that “Time is running out,” in Arabic. And other political conflicts are not immune to such interventions. For instance, in 2005 Libya disrupted UK broadcasts advocating human rights and freedom of expression for that country; and in 2007 the Tamil rebel group replaced an Intelsat satellite broadcast of the Sri Lankan government with its own propaganda broadcast. Iran has disrupted Eutelsat transmissions including BBC Persian, the Voice of America Persian Service and Radio Farda, prompting a Eutelsat protest to the International Telecommunications Union, the international body charged with governing the technical aspects of satellite and other types of communications.
There is a long history of “propaganda wars” in public broadcasting, beginning with the advent of public radio in the 1920’s. In 1936 the League of Nations sponsored the International Convention concerning the Use of Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace, which required state signatories to prohibit propaganda broadcasting and false news reporting via “transmissions,”, and to “restrict expression which constituted a threat to international peace and security”. During the Cold War and thereafter, the Convention was honored chiefly in the breach: for instance, mutual jamming of Soviet and Western broadcasts, such as Radio Moscow, Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America and BBC programming, was common and acknowledged by both blocs.
Disruptions of public TV broadcasts are not the only cyber-enabled method of intervention in our digital communications. Both within the context of military conflict, as between Israel and the Hamas; and outside of it, hackers regularly intrude into mobile cellphone networks, satellite internet connections, and GPS systems. The damage these intrusions can do to our data and privacy ranges from surprise and unpleasantness, as with the Hamas interruption of Big Brother, to devastating, as with the infamous cyber intrusion to Sony’s databases in 2014, allegedly by North Korea. The vulnerabilities of critical systems and infrastructures to such disruptions have prompted deep concern for national and global security among many decision-makers and lawmakers.
And the potential for more serious, physical damage is growing, as we saw with the alleged Russian cyber operations against the Ukrainian national electric grid in December 2015. The hack effectively cut off electricity for several of the country’s regions, affecting close to 300 cities, and it was synchronized with an outage of the electric company’s customer service centers so that calls notifying of the outage were not immediately received. These recent events in the Ukraine demonstrate dramatically the extent to which critical infrastructures such as utility services are vulnerable to cyber operations that may begin in the virtual arena, yet can have dramatic and even life-threatening real-world results. Imagine the possible effects of similar hostile cyber operations against cyber-controlled water supplies, oil pipelines and civilian aircraft navigation systems.
The international legal regime governing broadcasts and many other cyber-enabled communications is a longstanding one, with established ways of dealing with interruptions to transmissions of all types at the technical level. More complex is the problem of broadcasting and transmitting propaganda and political content, such as the recent Hamas video interruption of Big Brother. Beyond the relatively simple technical problems caused – and the technical ability to quickly remedy such interruptions if needed – lies a fundamental question. How will international law and the laws of particular states address the interruption of public communications, including the broadcast of terrorist propaganda, in the current ubiquity of cyberspace and the never-ending flow of communications and data passing through it to each of us?
The state of the law is currently in flux. In this next crucial stage of its development in the cyberspace context, the norms that will govern disruptions to broadcasting such as last week’s Hamas terrorist clip will be determined by sovereign states’ need to protect citizens’ communications and data, by the transborder freedom of information and by the new considerations of national security in cyberspace.